Hey, the NYT said “acqhire”: Journey of a buzzword

acqhire as seen in New York Times

Circle this date.

Today, the term acqhire, the portmanteau neologism* first introduced to the world on this blog six years ago, made it onto the front page of the New York Times.

I can now officially mark “coining a buzzword” off my bucket list.

The word appears in this article about the exact phenomenon for which I coined it in 2005 — big tech companies purchasing small companies, primarily as a talent recruitment strategy with a sometimes significant signing bonus (and, if certain conditions are met, the signing bonus may be treated in a way that will subject it to capital gains taxes (15%) rather than as ordinary income).

When I saw today’s story online last night, I googled “acqhire” to make sure I was on solid ground claiming “coinage” rights on the term. Fortunately, I discovered (and I really can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before) a very thorough examination of the term’s derivation written last year on the website Visual Thesaurus by its editor, the noted linguist and lexicographer, Ben Zimmer, who is perhaps best known for following William Safire as the On Language columnist for the New York Times Magazine until that column ended earlier this year. In other words, if you want to question the origins of this buzzword, you’ll need to take it up with Mr. Zimmer, not me. (Whew. Glad that’s off my plate.)

Quote from Zimmer:

“Very often it’s impossible to find out where a newly coined word first came from, but in this case we can trace all of the variants back to a blog post by Rex Hammock on May 11, 2005. In that post he introduced acqhire (no hyphen, no “u”) and defined it thusly: “When a large company ‘purchases’ a small company with no employees other than its founders, typically to obtain some special talent or a cool concept.” Om Malik of GigaOM immediately picked up on it, and the blog that he oversees became a proponent of the word (though, as seen above, they’re not too sure how to spell it).

“Hammock hasn’t hidden the fact that he’s been trying to work acqhire into the tech/biz lexicon. In December 2006 he used it as a verb (“I believe Microsoft has just acqhired a media brand”), and then said of the term, “I’ve been trying to turn it into a buzzword for a long time.” Now, more than five years after he first used it, we can see that the coinage has made some strides among one sector of the blogosphere, but it hasn’t progressed much beyond that. Perhaps that’s because of its strange look, blending acquire and hire into a word that is head-scratchingly difficult to spell and to pronounce. (I assume it’s meant to be pronounced “ack-hire.”)

So, out of one sector of the blogosphere and onto the front page of the New York Times. Whoomp, there it is.

Zimmer just about nailed it with that article — down to the part about me not hiding my promotion of the term into buzzword status.

The only aspect to the word’s journey untold is that much of my “promotion” related to the term was an inside joke I’ve carried on with two friends, Rafat Ali, founder of Paidcontent.org and Staci Kramer, PaidContent’s editor. That original blog post usage was in response to something appearing on PaidContent.org (Google purchasing Dodgeball, which is ironic in an unrelated way). They were quick to use the term and attribute it to me. Indeed, it was PaidContent.org’s use of the term, not mine, that spread it to tech writers who started using it to describe the phenomena that is the focus of the article in today’s New York Times.

I also concur with Zimmer in his notation that the word acqhire had appeared on the web several months prior to my usage. I know, because I Googled it when I wrote that post, thinking that I might need to attribute it to someone. However, as he also notes, the prior usage of the word was unrelated to the buzzword context to which I applied it.

I also agree with the commenter on his post that word is ugly, however I attribute its ugliness solely to the eyes of those who believe the letter Q should always be followed by the letter U. However, in the context of this specific buzzword hack, the joke just didn’t work with any other spelling.

*A note on neologisms and blogging:

When I started this blog a decade ago, creating a neologism was not on my list of goals for two reasons: there was no list of goals (still isn’t) and I hadn’t discovered the word neologism was a fancy way of saying “buzzword.”

However, in 2004, I was an observer and chronicler of the initial spread of the word podcasting when I linked to a post written by Doc Searls — a post in which he explained the concept of what podcasting is and in which he happened to note that a Google search of the word podcasts that day generated a grand-total of merely 24 results on Google. Five years later on the anniversary of that post, I noted Google returned 81+ million results. I also noted in that post that Dave Winer, in this 2001 blog post had actually explained the concept and development of the enabling RSS code that still makes podcasting podcasting long before the term was applied to it. (Side thought: Dave has created or popularized a string of innovations that have been re-named and re-packaged by others.)

I watched closely the spread of the term podcasting (which, in one version of the founding-myth, Adam Curry coined to describe Dave’s RSS-enabled approach to the syndication of audio files) from that first Doc Searls post until a year later when I wrote a few thousand words predicting how Apple’s incorporation of the support of RSS enclosure tags in iTunes would change the world as we then knew it. (I just scanned that collection of posts and, well, I was pretty close on many of my predictions.)

Through the years, I’ve seen several geekish words used by tech bloggers jump into the mainstream (obvious one: blog). Because of the unique place internet-enabled technology plays in our lives (all these devices are marketed to both consumers and businesses and touch every aspect of how we live and work), it no longer surprises me to run into someone at Starbucks who says they found a link to a post of mine via Techmeme. (I used to say what perplexed me, “Why would my insurance guy be monitoring Techmeme?”)

Bottomline: The era of blogging, and now Twitter, has turned linguistics into a real-time sport.

Update: Our in-office linguist just informed me that if acqhire can make it into the OED, it will be of great value to Scrabble and Words with Friends players.